Delhi: Everyone in Nangal Village has to walk over a kilometre, passing the crematorium ground and several army camps on both sides of the road, to fetch drinking water. On Sunday, a 9-year-old girl from the same village wanted to drink cold water. She never came back home.
Five days after the 9-year-old was allegedly raped, killed and cremated against her parents' wishes, protesters continued to demand "justice for Gudiya" and, in turn, capital punishment for the four accused who have been arrested. One of them is a Hindu priest.
At the Old Nangal crematorium, residents from the surrounding neighbourhood often gather, the locals say, to drink and gamble. The 9-year-old's mother, a rag-picker, would often go to the crematorium; the priest had tasked her with removing the clothes from the corpse' bodies. Her daughter would follow her.
On most days, the mother-daughter would be found sitting at the nearby dargah, begging for food and money from the visitors.
"My daughter, my gudiya was fine till 5:30 pm on Sunday," her mother said, who believes that her daughter was raped and then cremated to destroy the evidence. Everyday since her daughter died, she has been sitting at the protest gathering on the street, just 500 metres away from the crematorium, accompanied by hundreds of locals, activists and politicians.
On August 1, at around 6:30 pm, someone came to tell her that the priest had been looking for her. When she reached the cremation ground, she was told that her daughter was dead.
As she looked closely at her daughter, whose body was placed on a bench in the crematorium, she saw the bruises in her hands, her skin peeled off. There were burn marks on her wrists and elbow. Her lips were blue, her tongue had turned black. "There was blood in her nose and her mouth," her mother recounted. The priest told her that the 9-year-old got electrocuted while trying to fill water.
"The priest told me that if I call the police, they will conduct a post-mortem and then sell her organs," she said. The priest told her that no one would listen to her because she is a rag-picker.
The crematorium gates were then closed and her mother watched the funeral pyres as the priest convinced her not to speak about it. "They didn't even put the logs, her face was turned around...and they burnt her," she said.
Moments later, the locals rushed in, broke open the gates and beat up the priest. They tried to douse the fire as one of them rescued all that was left of her body-- her limbs.
'I want justice…'
"I want justice for my child. They raped her and then killed her," the 9-year-old girl's mother said.
The neighbourhood where the 9-year-old lived is mostly inhabited by 'low caste' communities-- but there's a clear demarcation between the 'valmiki' community who are engaged in menial activities of cleaning and picking rags and the other residents.
One of the accused, Laxmi Narayan, lived in the same neighbourhood, a few blocks away. The priest, 55-year-old Radhey Shyam, lived in the crematorium. Two others who have been arrested--- Kuldeep and Salim-- lived in the nearby neighbourhood, across the crematorium ground.
"My son is innocent. We are educated people. He stayed busy with his work," said Ram Chandra, Laxmi Narayan's father. The 72-year-old, a retired armed-forces serviceman, said that his son is a 'good man' and the reports claiming that he lived in the crematorium ground are false. "He lived at home, with his family," the wife of the accused said. Laxmi Narayan has a son, 18, and a daughter, 13. "On Sunday, after he finished work, he had gone to the barber's shop. He wasn't even in the crematorium ground at that time," the 46-year-old's wife said.
While the locals say that the priest confessed to raping and killing the child, the police say that the priest has maintained that the 9-year-old died due to electrocution.
The neighbours remember the 9-year-old as a chirpy girl. At the dargah, she would sit with her mother and greet "Ram Ram" to everyone who passed by.
"She was sharp, would have a rebuttal to anyone who would tease her," said another resident. "I would ask her mother to send her daughter to school. But she was scared to let her go outside the neighbourhood even. She was her only child," a neighbour said.
The 9-year-old's mother said that she didn't send her to school because she didn't have the means to. "But, there's one more reason. I come back home after picking up garbage late at night at 2- 3 am. I didn't want to lose sight of her, so I would keep her close to me," she said.
At the crematorium, soon after the locals entered, the police arrived too and arrested the priest and three others. That night, the neighbour heard her mother crying. "Pandit ji has burnt my daughter," she told the neighbour.
Hours later, the police took both the parents-- the mother and the father-- to the police station. "They kept us in two separate rooms and beat us," she alleged. "The police hurled abuses at me, threatened me and kicked me in my stomach," she said. They were released the next day in the evening.
"Why did they arrest me? The ones who committed the crime are still alive," she said. "If my daughter had died of electric shock, would her body look like that? Why did they forcibly cremate her? They didn't ask for my Aadhaar card number, no one asked for anything. I know those details are needed before cremation. They didn't cremate my daughter. They burnt her and destroyed the evidence of rape," she said.
The police, however, have denied accusations of mistreatment. They have also said that the charge of rape was not made in the initial complaint, and added a day later.
"They were not arrested, they were brought into the station for questioning," said Ingit Pratap Singh, Deputy Commissioner of Police, South-West Delhi. "There was a mob of around 250-300 at the crematorium when we reached there. It was hard to control the mob, they even attacked our vehicle. After that, we were unable to locate the mother and found her only at around 1:30 am. We took both the parents for questioning," he said. Singh said the reason they were made to stay in was because the family had to be taken before a magistrate when court proceedings begin the next morning. "They have been alleging mistreatment, so I have asked them to file a complaint. So far, I haven't received any complaint," he said.
'Justice or politics?'
Three days after the incident, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal visited the 9-year-old girl's family and announced financial assistance of ₹10 lakh and assured them that the Delhi government would appoint the best lawyers in the case. A magisterial enquiry had been ordered into the case. The same day Congress leader Rahul Gandhi visited the parents too. He later tweeted, "Dalit ki beti bhi deshi ki beti hoti hai".
Bhim Army chief Chandra Shekhar Azad, too, joined the protest and demanded a 'proper investigation'.
An all-woman delegation of the Trinamool Congress met the family members too. At the Parliament, Abhishek Banerjee, an MP and TMC's national general secretary, asked if the newly appointed Delhi Police Commissioner Rakesh Asthana was "already failing his duties." Asthana, meanwhile, has transferred the case to the crime branch for a 'speedy investigation'.
The incident and the protests demanding justice for the 9-year-old girl have made some hushed conversations loud. Less than two months ago, two Army personnel were arrested for allegedly raping two sisters in the same crematorium ground.
The locals say there have been more such rape cases on the same ground but no one wants to talk about it. "A couple of years ago, a similar incident happened but no one filed any case. The girl left the city," a resident of Nangal village said.
A 16-year-old, who came from a nearby neighbourhood, came to the protest site to seek justice, for herself. She told the locals that one of her relatives had sexually abused her.
Meanwhile, the locals gathered there to show each other the videos of the cremation. In the video, some men in police uniform are seen trying to disperse the crowd as the funeral pyre burns. In another video clip, the locals are seen hurling abuses at the crematorium priest and beating him.
Also Read: Rape Laws in India- All You Need To Know
The former Director General of Police of Himachal Pradesh Prithviraj also joined the protests. There were many students groups too. Prince Aadvanshi, a wrestler and national heavyweight champion, first came to the protest site with 10 other wrestlers. The next day, he came back with 90 wrestlers.
"It's no longer about justice, now it has become politics and selfies," a resident said.
Even as the slogans for capital punishment from different groups rise, the locals take the stage and say, "This is not a political incident, we want justice for our daughter. Those who have come here for politics should leave." Another group of locals try to intervene, they believe the politicians need to be welcomed for a 'speedy justice'.
'What has caste got to do with it?'
On Wednesday evening, an activist, sitting at the protest site, said she has decided not to eat till 'justice is served'. "The accused should be hanged, that's our demand," she said.
The four accused including the priest have been booked under sections pertaining to rape, murder and threatening charges, Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act and the SC/ST Act.
The activist said that the case highlights that 'our daughters' are not safe. "What has happened is shameful and horrific, but it's not about any caste."
Last year, in October, the alleged gangrape and murder of a 19-year-old woman in Uttar Pradesh's Hathras brought back the subject of women's safety, especially that of women from the lower caste.
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data reveal that 15.73 per cent of the total 1,31,430 incidents of crime under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act from 2017 to 2019 have been against women and children.
In March, a report by the Parliament Standing Committee on Home Affairs on atrocities and crimes against women and children from SC/ST communities stated that while there has been an increase of 15.55 per cent in crimes against them (2017-2019), the conviction rate under Prevention of Atrocities (PoA) Act in the same period has been as low as 26.86 per cent. The pendency is at 84.09 per cent. The panel had recommended that law enforcement agencies should include the provisions of the PoA Act while registering cases of rape, sexual harassment, etc., committed against SC/ST women.
Back at her one-roomed home, the 9-year-old girl's mother takes out a box that has the last photograph of her daughter, from the time she was 6 months old. "She was my only child. She is not coming back," she said.
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